Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer 1927–

Jhabvala is a novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter who was born in Germany of Polish parents, was educated in England, and has lived primarily in India since 1951. A perceptive, often satiric, observer of Europeans living in India and of the lifestyle of middle-class urban Indians, she portrays with wit and irony both Eastern and Western sensibilities. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Like her last novel, Travellers (and like her seven earlier novels), Ruth Jhabvala's new work [Heat and Dust] is distinguished by a rapier wit and subtlety, in a blend altogether unique to her. Invariably, Mrs. Jhabvala refuses the flat satiric thrust, the temptation to have the last word about her characters settled and done with, however cleverly. Rather, even the most callow-seeming and predictable of them have their moment of expansion and mystery; it is the mark of these characters that they should be, hilariously and unforgettably, both what they seem and yet more. Heat and Dust is set alternately in the India of the Twenties and the present, its main characters Englishmen and women who, like all Mrs. Jhabvala's Western protagonists, find themselves willingly or otherwise on a voyage of discovery in India. Indeed, it is the fate of the Westerners that in their encounter with India they perceive that which, clearly, they would wish not to perceive: that which makes the lives, the assumptions, the loves they already have less tenable than before…. It is, particularly in its delicate chartings of passion and of the growth of consciousness, a superb story, a gift to those who care for the novel, and to the art of fiction itself. (p. 30)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (© 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 3, 1976.

Unlike any other foreign novelist in English, Mrs. Jhabvala writes from within the extended Indian-family structure, an affectionately satiric observer of the conflict between traditional passivity and Westernized ambition within individuals battered by the indifferent tides of change in present-day Indian life. Though there are inescapable echoes of Forster when she writes about the reckless English innocents who these days "come no longer to conquer but to be conquered," her sharpest and most fully realized portraits are those of Indian parents and children, masters and servants, husbands and wives, whom she knows with the unthinking familiarity of an insider, but scrutinizes with the frequently amused detachment of a privileged stranger.

In her most recent work—"Travelers," published in 1973, and the new novel "Heat and Dust," which won the coveted Booker Prize in England—Mrs. Jhabvala has been struggling admirably to break away from the dubious contentments of the minor novelist who prefers not to make things too difficult for herself or her readers, and has tried to place her experience of India in less conventionally realistic, more demanding forms than she chose for her many domestic comedies of manners. In serious writers such deliberate assaults on habit are of course not a matter of esthetic whimsy but a way of coping with a changing point of view, and it is clear that Mrs. Jhabvala's attitudes toward India have been growing more ambivalent. (p. 7)

Mrs. Jhabvala moves nimbly between the two generations and the divergent points of time and sentiment between a vanished English past that was arrogant and unyielding and a venturesome English present that is mainly confused—in brief precipitate scenes, laconic but remarkably evocative…. Writing with austere, emphatic economy, she does not belabor the parallels and dissimilarities between the two levels of narrative—at least not until the very end. Like Forster, she renders the barriers of incomprehension and futility that persist between English and Indians with witty precision….

"Heat and Dust" is an obscure and somber novel, tense with undisclosed judgments and meanings that crouch and whisper just beyond one's reach. Mrs. Jhabvala stubbornly resists the brisk and tidy accommodations of satire that came so effortlessly to hand in her earlier work. And though there is no firm reason for thinking so, beyond a chillingly outspoken essay that she wrote a few years ago, a cri de coeur in which she declared "I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in India … my survival in India," I suspect that she is becoming tired of the literary burden of India she has carried for so many years. No longer in India, she may be ready, as novelist, to move on. (p. 8)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1976.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala continues her series of Indian short stories with a collection, How I Became a Holy Mother. She is a … complex operator, not in the sense of character motivation … but in the proper sense of the orientation of her psyche. The title story for example is brilliantly shifty as an English girl goes guru-hunting round the ashrams and is eventually deified for the public when she couples with a beautiful holy boyfriend.

The trouble with India is its volume, mental and physical. It is very easy to be angry or sentimental about it. Mrs. Jhabvala isn't either of these things. She is tough, clear and unusual. She has no propaganda to push on behalf of the Red Earth. Nor does she set herself up as one touched by the Wand of Knowledge, although knowledge is what she demonstrates with every inflection. Her Polish origins, English education and Indian husband must have something to do with the acute independence of her style and the feeling of confidence which accompanies it. Throughout the tone is dry and slightly sardonic, a writer of an economy somehow filled with events, beautiful to read. (p. 24)

Duncan Fallowell, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 3, 1976.

[In "Heat and Dust" the] alternation between parallel plots drains both of momentum, or of the substance that lends momentum; the two stories are shadows each of the other, conveying an ambience of reincarnation but also of inconsequence. Above the two planes of the plot, we feel a third, that of a supervisory manipulator, be it author or god…. A cyclical cosmology makes all stories essentially endless.

Perhaps Mrs. Jhabvala grew so tired of being reviewed in terms of "A Passage to India" that she deliberately set a tale in the era of Forster's classic novel. Olivia's world [of the 1920s], as reconstructed by the narrator in today's "Indianized" India, has a formal grandeur that supports her stylized romance and preordains it from the first page to its pattern of fascination and fall and flight and unutterable disgrace. Its vanished time seems enchanted—the men in evening dress, the servants silently barefoot, the monuments in the English cemetery freshly carved, the Nawab's pearl-gray palace still inhabited, its fountains flowing and its rooms full of mischief…. The cosmos may be cyclical, but the local demographic trend is all one way. The historical past in India seems not so much discarded as crowded out of being. (pp. 82-3)

The theme of a transcendent happiness recurs in Mrs. Jhabvala's short stories ("The Old Lady," "My First Marriage") and apparently declares a crucial aspect of her Indian experience. This happiness seems to be especially accessible to women…. The female characters, in 1923 as now, draw strength from this teeming land…. [The] god behind Mrs. Jhabvala's artful shuffle of Indian scenes and moments is female. (p. 83)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 5, 1976.

It might seem [from her fiction] that Mrs Jhabvala leaves no hope for the European in his quest for a satisfying experience of India. But she does not, I think, destroy all optimism. Although she obviously feels that East is East and West is West and that when the twain do meet the air soon thickens with misunderstandings, she does point out that people unlike herself could stand a better chance of being 'truly merged with India'. 'To stay and endure,' she says, 'one should have a mission and a cause, be patient, cheerful, unselfish, strong. I am a Central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.'

Even more encouraging is the total effect of her own work. Full as it is of warnings, of descriptions of social dangers and emotional disasters and marriages gone sour and holy grails that turn out to be will-o'-the-wisps, it is in toto a highly successful and understanding experience of India, however she herself may have deprecated it and written it off as failure. Indeed, the stories in How I Became a Holy Mother show that Mrs Jhabvala has mellowed since her earlier forebodings and 'Keep Out!' messages to the aspiring immigrant. She has, I believe, left Delhi recently and gone to live in the States, and it may be that these stories were conceived in the light of that decision, an instance of intended absence making the heart grow fonder. In this collection she seems gentler, more compassionate, and in most of the stories she leaves her characters forgiving one another or finding that minor virtues can outweigh major faults. For example, the wife in 'In a Great Man's House' knows her husband, the pompous Khan Sahib, to be utterly domineering and inflexible, but when she hears him singing a romantic song, his voice and interpretation full of feeling and insight into a woman's suffering, she is quite happy—because, not in spite, of him…. In 'Two More Under the Indian Sun' Mrs Jhabvala seems at first to be as waspish as ever to the two English women, particularly to the dogmatic, energetic do-gooder, Margaret, but in the last two pages of the story it is on Margaret, not on the more sympathetic Elizabeth, that the author bestows her charitable insight.

Heat and Dust … struck me as rather too contrived a novel, the parallel vicissitudes of the narrator and of her grandfather's first wife too obviously a literary ploy; but there is nothing contrived about the stories in How I Became a Holy Mother. Mrs Jhabvala is a still developing and maturing short story writer, and is now using all her skills of satire, irony and humour, together with that formidable knack of catching a tone of voice and outlook on the world so different from her own, to penetrate further and further into the most intimate relationships between friends, lovers, husband and wife, disciple and teacher, Hindu and Moslem, and Indian and European. To have lived in India for twenty-four years and still to be adding to her comédie humaine of Western sense and Eastern sensibility does not strike me either as an example of waste or as an admission of failure. Whatever she may say about herself, in her books if not in her life she has 'truly merged with India'. (pp. 96-7)

John Mellors, "Merging with India," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1976), August-September, 1976, pp. 96-7.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is an excellent short-story writer with a natural sense of the comedy available to those who keep their eyes open to Indian society. She is also good at showing the essential difficulties of Europeans assimilating the culture of India. Recently she has been expanding her territory by writing serious multilayered novels which, as part of their significance, allude to earlier fiction about the English in India. Heat and Dust, her latest novel, tells two related stories. In the 1920s a young, newly married Englishwoman, bored with the confinement of provincial colonial life, leaves her husband for an unscrupulous but charming local prince, whose family rejects her. The remainder of her life is shrouded in mystery…. [The] story is a classic tale of the colonial period, warning of the dangers of exotic attractions abroad. The significance can also be inverted to show the early twentieth-century liberal message, as exemplified by E. M. Forster's novels, that it is necessary to reach out across social and national borders to experience life fully…. [The second] story, representative of the modern era, is as delphic as the older tale: [this protagonist's] history can be that of either spiritual discovery or frivolous illusion, not unlike that of the foreign hippies and drug addicts who are noticed as part of modern Indian scenery. Presumably the two histories show the timeless European fascination with India and Hindu culture.

Heat and Dust is a well written novel, carefully put together, but contrived…. The events are parallel between the two narratives throughout the novel, which has been influenced by the recently popular cinematographic techniques of jump shots and intercutting scenes. The juxtaposition of two diaries is fleshed out by interviews, descriptions, and the voice of the narrator. Unfortunately the contrast between the highly stylized life of the past and the cold, unrevealing modern narrator appears a mechanical device to create irony and ambiguity. One feels left on the surface of the experience. We see an India which has decayed from past grandeur, which was built upon now unacceptable exploitation of the poor; and we see young inarticulate Europeans seeking a spiritual refuge in India, but we feel neither India in any depth nor the inner emotions of those who have rejected European society. There is a sense in which this is an outsider's novel in which romantic infatuation with the exotic has been made to appear disciplined through narrative techniques carrying associations of paradox and puzzlement…. I suppose Heat and Dust is meant to show that we cannot judge the attraction of India to the Europeans and that they never in fact can assimilate a culture so different from their own. (pp. 131-32)

Each of the ten stories [in How I Became a Holy Mother] recounts the experiences of women in India. As the stories progress, social satire is infused with intimations of deeper revelations of character which unfortunately are not developed. Each of the stories is an example of the craft of writing: characters are so well sculptured as first to appear stereotypes, but when put into motion are found to have deeper, less clearly articulated emotional lives; often the main plot leads to a secondary character who is found to be the real interest of the story; the main characters' habits of thought are reflected in the author's narrative style, which grows more supple as the characters develop. Such craftsmanship should produce great art; it does not because the emphasis is on irony, pacing, and paradox instead of the rich inner life that the stories imply after the original stereotypes have been demolished. (pp. 132-33)

Bruce King, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1977 by The University of the South), Winter, 1977.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's [stories in How I Became a Holy Mother are] Chekhovian in that they are anti-climactic and non-dramatic, more concerned with stasis than with change even when there is the appearance of change. The first sentence of 'Desecration', one of her best stories, mentions the suicide of the central character, Sofia, but the rest of the story, while describing the adulterous affair that leads to her death, scrupulously avoids the obvious dramatic, even sensational, potential of the narrative. By announcing the suicide at the outset, thus removing the possibility of suspense, Mrs Jhabvala can concentrate on what interests her about the affair, Sofia's growing awareness of her inner contradictions which eventually become too unbearable to live with. 'Desecration' ends before Sofia's suicide, and there is no description of the events immediately preceding it or of its manner. Even in this story, which is more intense and sexually explicit than Mrs Jhabvala usually is, her restraint is very considerable.

Mrs Jhabvala is noted for her sense of nuance, emotional delicacy, and sympathetic sensitivity rather than for her technical adventurousness. As a story writer she is content to be a descendant of Chekhov and … shows little interest—perhaps it is a typically American interest—in stretching the genre. Yet her formal conservatism is probably an advantage considering the comparative novelty of her subject matter, the contemporary muddle (as opposed to mystery) of India—human muddle, not political. In this book she is principally concerned with Indians themselves rather than Europeans in India, although European influence is usually a factor. The title-story, however, is a wry, ironic narrative about the current Western flirtation with Eastern religion written from the viewpoint of one of the flirts, a twice-married English ex-model in her early twenties who is not overburdened with either intellect or common sense and who is looking more for a relaxing change than a spiritual nirvana. With its portrayal of a bizarre, free-sex ashram and dubious gurus, seemingly as interested in Western holes as in Eastern holiness, this story is untypically satirical for Mrs Jhabvala, but is too soft-pedalled to be wholeheartedly so. If the humour had been broader and the satire sharper, the story might have been even better, but satire is not her forte.

Where she excels is in rendering the ambiguities of Indian life, including the tensions between traditionalism and progressivism, during a period of social change. She does this not in general terms but by exploring particular individuals in their relationships with their husbands or their wives or their parents or their children or other people with whom they are involved…. The ambiguities can produce tragedy as in 'Desecration' or comedy as in 'Picnic with Moonlight and Mangoes'. Mrs Jhabvala is never in danger of repeating herself, but what most of her characters have in common is an essential loneliness, whether they realize this or not. Many of these stories are really about alienation, the failure of communication, the difficulty of making genuine human contact, and the near-impossibility of fulfilment—themes that receive their most complex treatment in 'In a Great Man's House', arguably the best story. Mrs Jhabvala casts a cool, but not a cold, eye on life, and a tone of melancholy pervades much of the book. She writes about India, but her India is as universal as Yoknapatawpha. (pp. 68-9)

Peter Lewis, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 18, No. 2 (1977).

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